Fleet of foot, he ran from the gloom of a shaded courtyard to the full sun of a terrace, followed by the feathered beast he had befriended. An enduring memory of The Last Guardian (1) is of a small boy loping through the abandoned ruins of an ancient city in search of a path onward, the staccato slap of his feet accompanied by the heavy footfalls of the enormous cat/bird hybrid named Trico.
In video games, frequently much is promised and little delivered when it comes to the psychological depth and lifelike behaviour of non-player characters. Usually we get the standard automatons with a few personality quirks and a rote backstory applied like decals. Even when sincere effort is made, these characters are still expected to serve the player the next chunk of game content in a timely manner, verisimilitude be damned.
The Last Guardian stands in opposition to such compromises; Trico may be a simple-minded beast, but he is an utterly believable one. With convincing physicality and the illusion of deep thought our companion leaps and crawls, peeks and pokes, keens and cowers. Trico is a peerless success: a non-player character with a repertoire of behaviour and expression so complex and emotive that he is the singular attraction of the game.
This complexity is not without problems; Trico is not a tool. Teasing cooperation from this wild and wilful animal is sometimes delightful but more often a chore. The game’s ludic and narrative modes are constantly at odds in this way and others, making for moment to moment gameplay that breeds frustration and causes emotional engagement to fizzle. Shortcomings in technical execution and interaction design are compounded by a narrator who tells us how to feel when the game fails to illicit the intended emotion and what to do when we cannot grok its puzzles.
Mercifully the narrator never tells us that the boy and the beast love one another – we decide this for ourselves by our own actions. Trico defends us and we repay his loyalty by pulling spears from his body and wiping clean his bloodied plumage, until at the end we are unable to do our part and so we must send him away, broken and alone. These are moments of tenderness and genuine pathos that we remember long after the game is over. It could be that The Last Guardian is an experience best enjoyed in reminiscence.